Avoiding Boulders

By Mark E. Smith

Many, many years ago, I taught a semester-long course called “The College Success Workshop.” Its purpose was to teach freshman the skills needed to better succeed in college. I covered subjects ranging from test-taking skills to study habits to healthy living. My favorite section, though, was on the importance of positive focus.

I told my students of a research study done in the 1980s on a highway in the Nevada desert. There was nothing but flatlands along the 30-mile stretch of highway – except for a single mound with a boulder approximately at the halfway point. At least once per week, a car crashed into the boulder. The boulder was legendary to the state police, many referring to it as “The Magnet.”

Researchers stumbled upon this as a case study and also wondered how it was that so many people hit such an avoidable object in the middle of the desert?

They interviewed many who’d collided with the boulder and found a striking similarity among them. When asked what was the last thought they remembered before leaving the road and hitting the boulder, they all answered to the effect of, “Don’t hit that boulder!”

Maybe you can relate with those drivers, having thought, “Don’t spill this coffee,” only to spill your coffee! The fact is, what we focus on is most often what we experience, both in the positive and the negative. The science behind it is called experience-dependent neuroplasticity. In simple terms, we have the power to create our state of mind based on what we focus on, and that creates actual experiences.

For this reason, the importance of focusing on the positives in our lives can’t be overstated. Our mindsets dictate both outcomes and our quality of life.

I remember going through a rough period as a teen where I was focused on all that was wrong with me. This isn’t unheard of with teens, as it’s a difficult time for many. However, I do think that disability can compound such feelings, and it did for me. I focused on how my cerebral palsy made me feel so removed from my peers, how unattractive I was, what little I brought to the world. It was a bleak time, where I couldn’t even envision a future for myself. What’s a 14-year-old with severe cerebral palsy ever going to become?

Although I had made tremendous strides in life, it wasn’t until I was 16 that I realized that I was focusing on the wrong areas. I didn’t need to focus on how weak my body was, but how strong my mind was. I didn’t need to focus on my spasticity, but my charm. I didn’t need to focus on who I wasn’t, but who I was. I was a remarkable person in my own right, as we all are, and when I focused on that, not only did my life change, but the world around me did, as well.

This principle applies to all of our lives. That is, our lives evolve based on what we focus on. If we see the world as a negative place, it is, just as if we see the world as a positive place, it is. Our experience is ultimately built by our own mindset.

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t address the tough stuff in life, as of course we should in responsible ways. I can’t just ignore the difficult realities of my disability, as there’s no skirting them. Nevertheless, only focusing on the negative literally makes us and all around us negative. That’s a difficult way to live.

All of us have blessings and curses in our lives. Yet, we also have the ability to choose how to frame our lives. Are we focused on the blessings or the curses? The choice is ours, but the outcome is unquestionable. If we focus on the blessings, we live a blessed life. If we focus on the curses, we live a cursed life.

I say, let’s focus on the positives in our lives – and avoid those boulders!

Complaining About Complaining

By Mark E. Smith

Complaining is an interesting subject to address because it’s sort of complaining about… well… complaining. However, before you deem this writing as the ultimate hypocrisy, keep reading!

Indeed, we live in a culture of complainers. Everyone seems to complain about everything. For example, is there any type of weather that people like? I know a television weatherman and he once told me it’s a completely thankless job because no matter the weather, his email and voicemail are filled with complaints. We see this in our own lives, too – can’t people just accept that the weather is what it is, rather than complaining about it, that which no one can control?

Of course, people incessantly complain about everything from their jobs to the lives of celebrities. If complaining wasn’t so toxic, it would be amusing to witness at times. However, that’s precisely what many don’t understand – complaining takes a toll on our lives. So, why do we complain so much and what’s its true impact on us?

By definition, we complain to “express dissatisfaction.” Yet, there’s a legitimacy scale to it. We all may rightfully complain when we receive poor service by an establishment. On the other hand, complaining about, say, the weather is a futile expression that truly has no point. You can’t change the weather, so there’s no reason to complain about it.

Interestingly, research shows that chronic complainers are individuals who feel powerless in their overall lives. You might have previously thought that chronic complainers were egomaniacs or know-it-all critics; but, in fact, the opposite is true. Chronic complainers typically use complaining as a way to mask feeling inadequate. For example, people who are envious of others most often use complaining about them as a coping device – albeit, a self-destructive one. The school board members are idiots. I could do a much better job….

The reality of complainers feeling a deep sense of powerlessness makes sense because those who feel a sense of control in life strive to resolve issues rather than simply complain about them. Those who do, do. Those who don’t, complain.

Complaining can also serve as a way to shun responsibility. I know someone who’s complained about his job for 15 years, constantly disparaging the company and complaining about never getting promoted. Someone of action would either pick up the pace of his performance or would find another job. Complaining conveniently shifts responsibility elsewhere, pointing a finger away from ourselves.

It’s the shift away from personal accountability that makes complaining so toxic in our lives. Look what happens when we question a complainer:

If I was in charge, this would never happen!

Ok, but why aren’t you in charge?

The complainer ends up in a bind quickly because a lack of responsibility and accountability is exposed.

With that said, it’s most often pointless to confront a chronic complainer. Again, they are individuals who shun responsibility and accountability. However, we can change ourselves. Let us begin by noting how much we, ourselves, complain – you might be surprised by how often you’re engaging in it once you’re monitoring your own behavior.

Next, let us focus on less complaining and more doing – that’s a surefire way to actually resolve dissatisfaction and mobilize our lives toward the positive.

Of course, the biggest trap of complaining is that we rob ourselves of joy. Complaining is rooted in bitterness and resentment – read that, misery –whereas the surest path to happiness is gratitude.

Therefore, let us see not the negatives in life, but empower ourselves and those around us by focusing on the positives.

Maya Angelou put it best: “What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. Don’t complain.”

Dare Not to Care What Others Think

By Mark E. Smith

If there’s one aspect of life that we all share, it’s knowing what it’s like to be judged, criticized, and disliked. Gandhi and Mother Teresa were among the greatest humanitarians in history – and even they continue being judged, criticized, and disliked by some. It’s odd but true: To be human is to know what it’s like to be disliked.

Most of us felt the pain of being disliked at some point during our school years, and that was extremely difficult because it’s a time when, according to psychology, we most want to fit in, with little coping mechanisms to help us when we’re told in some way that we don’t, as with experiencing bullying. However, being judged, criticized, and disliked doesn’t stop in school; it follows us into adulthood. And, how we address it within our adulthood dictates the quality of our lives. Others are going to judge, criticize, and dislike us – even disliking Gandhi and Mother Teresa! – but we have the choice to let it consume us or to rise to the understanding that it is what it is, and how others view us doesn’t define who we are. Which have you been choosing?

A friend of my wife recently posted on Facebook an experience that took my breath away on this subject:

I do what I do, having my family and also my career, because they make me happy and give me purpose, and have given me confidence in who I am. I was reminded of this earlier today when we were out furniture shopping. I don’t want my sons to live in a world where humans can be so cruel to each other.

We went to a large, chain furniture store, and as a male sales person was helping us, two female saleswomen were sitting at a table and immediately started speaking in another language about how fat I was, and how my dress was cute, but what a shame because I was so fat, but at least I made cute babies. I walked by, hearing this, holding my son’s hand. I told my husband to take my son and go look at the kid’s furniture, and I turned around and went passed the two women again, who continued to speak about me in another language, which I fluently speak. After about five minutes, I had had enough. I turned and faced them:

“I hope you realize I understand every word that came out of your mouths, and you should both be ashamed.”

I got back four stunned eyes looking at me and an, “Oh, I’m sorry, Ma’am.”

“Sorry” was a bit too late for this infuriated, pregnant mama, who has dealt with bullies like these all of her life. I told myself, “Leave now before you loose it!” But, my emotions got the best of me, so I turned around one more time and said to my salesman, “I want you to tell the manager what you hear me say now,” and I turned towards the women again:

“You are sad, so very sad, but you don’t break me. I’m going to continue wearing this dress no matter what you think of me and, yes, I do make beautiful babies like the one who I’m currently carrying and the one whose hand I was holding while you were belittling me, while not realizing I fluently speak and understand multiple languages. What you don’t know about me is that I’m happy. I’m a business owner. And, while you may call me fat, I wake up each day with a clear conscience that I’m raising my children to be better humans than you ever will be.”

I walked with my family out of the store.

My point for posting this is simple: Never let anyone steal your sparkle. Look at the life around you, and look within you to rise above it, and most of all, do not let it break you….

The fact is, despite self-confidence, it’s in our evolution to want validation and approval. We’re tribal creatures at heart, and once upon a time, not getting the approval of others meant banishment or death, so a momentary visceral reaction – and I emphasize, momentary – in such a situation as above is totally normal. We’ve all felt that sting and defense mechanism. So, for starters, we rightfully feel angry or hurt when judged, criticized, or disliked, regardless if it’s a stranger or someone close.

However, we no longer live in an evolutionary time of survival based on what others think. In fact, we live in a time where simply who we are – the character we demonstrate – dictates our success. Therefore, it’s to our advantage to focus not on what anyone thinks of us, but how we can purely be the best at who we are and what we do.

Have you ever noticed that the most comfortable, successful people aren’t concerned with what others think? It’s not that they’re arrogant or oblivious or don’t care. They want to be liked just as we all do. Yet, they innately understand that they don’t need to be liked in order to be of value. They know that they are of value because of who they are and what they do – and they don’t allow that to be up for debate by others.

See, there’s a fundamental difference between wanting to be liked versus needing to be liked. We all want to be liked – who doesn’t? However, when we need to be liked, we alter our behavior to fit what we think others want. In that process, we may squelch the truest, most valuable parts of ourselves and, worst yet, when we don’t get approval, we feel crushed. That’s not only a tough, unhealthy way to live, but it limits us toward being the amazing person we are, as-is. If we’re always trying to please others, we can never let our true selves shine.

Indeed, we can spend our lives worrying about what others think of us, but we know that doesn’t work. So, let’s focus on what does work: being the best we can be, and letting the chips fall where they do. We can’t please everyone and not everyone is going to like us. That’s OK. Let them focus on whatever they wish while we focus on flourishing, as-is.

As one with a severe physical disability, I’ve had others try to dictate my life since the moment of my birth, when I was given only hours to live, then when I did live, I was deemed a “complete vegetable.” As my life has progressed, such projections toward me continue daily. I’ve been judged, criticized, mocked, and dismissed in every possible way, no matter due to cerebral palsy or being a public figure. But, what did cease long ago was my giving anyone’s interpretation of me credence. My path in life has been solely dictated by one person: Me. I’ve heard everyone’s opinions toward me, but my life proves the final say, as does each of ours.

Let us not worry about getting others’ approval, but focus on living to our own potential and desires. And, when we encounter people trying to get us to buy into getting their approval through their judgment, criticism, or dislike of us, let’s move past anger toward empathy. The world is a mirror, and such projections as those women in the furniture store are reflections of themselves. For this reason, I try not to get angry or pity those who seek to judge and criticize others, but have empathy for them. Healthy, happy, successful people do not judge and criticize others; rather, those with internal struggles do. I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes – or furniture store! Again, it’s normal to get angry, offended, or stung in the moment when encountering rudeness. But, empathy goes a long way toward the big picture that they’re struggling in ways we’re not.

The best impression that you can make of yourself in the world comes not from trying to impress others or by being concerned with what they think, but by being the truest you.  That’s the type of amazing individual that people ultimately flock to.

In the Weeds of Life

By Mark E. Smith

Spring. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition, isn’t it? On the one hand, beautiful perennial flowers sprout and bloom with more vibrant colors than could ever be painted. On the other hand, weeds simultaneously grow, and if left without intervention, soon overtake the flowers. It can become tougher and tougher to see the beauty of spring among the chaos it also brings.

This process isn’t unique to spring and nature. In fact, many of us can identify a similar process within ourselves. That is, we can find our intrinsic beauty overtaken in our own negative self-perception. How often do we look in the mirror and only see seeming physical flaws? How often do we think of ourselves and only recall our seeming shortcomings? How often do we look at the scope of our lives and only think of our seeming failures? I’ve been there, and still go there from time to time, and it’s a tough way to live – in the weeds of life, you might say.

At some point, though, we have to remind ourselves that no matter how thick the weeds of life are, our intrinsic beauty and value is there. We need to clear our flower beds – read that, ourselves – of the weeds obscuring the beauty of it all. This isn’t to say we don’t each have our own weeds – I’m a rolling fiasco with cerebral palsy, and that’s never going to change. However, it is possible to clear our beds and look past the imperfection of sporadic weeds to our intrinsic beauty. I know that’s a tough perspective to have when the weeds of life have grown thick because, yes, what adversely happens to us in life deeply affects our sense of self. Yet, it is possible and vital to regain the self-truth of our buried beauty. So, how do we clear the weeds to reveal our beauty, namely to ourselves?

Speaking from my own experience, I’ve found several ways to “de-weed” my inner flower bed when needed. Firstly, let us acknowledge and try not to take our imperfections too seriously. Having cerebral palsy has its challenges, but I find genuine humor in some of the ridiculous aspects of my condition. My wife and I have a never-ending joke that when I’m in bed, and my legs spasm, I look like a happy baby kicking in his crib. There’s nothing suave about a man’s legs kicking the blankets – but it is hilarious to see!

Next, I strive to accept only the truths in my life. People can say or think what they wish about us, but it’s the truth in our lives that counts. You know who you are and what you do, so try not to let the uninformed, poor intentions others distract you from the truths in your life.

Thirdly, I don’t believe we must develop a thick skin to survive. Rather, we need to merely surround ourselves with trustworthy people. Surrounding ourselves with reciprocating, healthy people is a great way to keep the weeds out.

Lastly, let’s try not to let circumstances or experiences define us, but learn from them, chalking them up as part of life’s journey, and move on. Making a mistake, then allowing that isolated circumstance to define us, is a terrible trap to fall into. We all make mistakes; let us have the self-forgiveness to move on.

Of course, there is one final way to remove the weeds in our lives, exposing our intrinsic beauty, and that is to acknowledge the beauty in others. The world is a mirror, and what we see often both reflects us and reflects upon us. If we acknowledge the beauty in others, we’re far more likely to see the beauty in ourselves, as well.

I wish clearing the metaphorical weeds of life was as easy as weeding a literal flower bed. It’s not. However, we deserve not to be self-mired in weeds, but to see our amazingly unique vibrancies that we contribute to the world. Flourish, no matter the weeds!

Penciling-In Purpose

maslowshierarchyofneeds-svg

By Mark E. Smith

Abraham Maslow was a well-respected psychologist in the mid 20th century. In 1943, he published a paper in Psychological Review, titled, “A Theory of Human Motivation.” Put simply, Maslow explored what made great people… well… great. However, his research didn’t stop there. Over the next decade, he further studied such “exemplary” individuals, as he coined, as Frederick Douglass, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Albert Einstein. He also studied the top 1% of college students. With this data, he then defined an exact hierarchy of five traits that formed a pyramid, where if you had all of the ideal traits – physiological, safety, love, esteem, and self-actualization – you reached the ultimate state of “what a person can be.”

With his “Hierarchy of Needs” pyramid published in 1954, Maslow garnered a lot of attention. It was sort of among the first self-help paths: follow these steps and you, too, can be a fully-evolved, ultra-successful person. Yet, in the 60 years since, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has been questioned. The psychology community agrees there is a hierarchy of needs – breathing obviously comes before love – but many doubt Maslow’s sub-category rankings. For example, does sex come before intimacy, or intimacy before sex, and many argue that Maslow’s hierarchy can vary geographically, from culture to culture. Therefore, there are easily-seen holes in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

As one who’s studied Maslow since college over 25 years ago, I’ve increasingly noted a gap in his pyramid, myself. No, I’m not a psychologist, but one doesn’t need to be in order to understand what we need to be healthy, successful and fulfilled: a sense of purpose.

When we look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, nowhere does he note purpose. Yet, we all know what it’s like to question our purpose, why we’re here, why we do what we do? And, when we have the answer – that is, when we feel a sense of purpose in our lives – it’s the ultimate fulfillment. I’d assert that purpose is as vital as breathing, itself. In fact, in the hospice community, we often hear of those seemingly refusing to pass until their purpose is resolved. A sense of purpose most often defines our lives in the end.

Of course, a sense of purpose is found in endless ways. As parents, striving to do best by our children, it’s impossible not to feel a sense of purpose. In our careers, if we feel that we’re truly making an impact, it gives us a sense of purpose. In our communities, if we serve others, it gives us a sense of purpose. The list goes on and on; however, there is a unifying key to all senses of purpose: we must sincerely feel we’re serving others in some way. This doesn’t mean that we need to win the Nobel Prize for medicine to feel a sense of purpose. Rather, it simply means we must feel that our actions, big or small, serve others. If you walk into a field and shovel snow, at best you’ll just get a workout. However, if you shovel your elderly neighbor’s walkway, you’re guaranteed to feel a sense of purpose.

Purpose is also wonderfully contagious, and we should never be cautious about spreading it – let purpose loose! I recently got wonderfully pulled into a flurry of purpose. A gentleman in our community saw his purpose in collecting clothing for our local men’s shelter. He emailed a single person, and she emailed another, and by the time I was added to the email chain, I was awestruck by so many finding their purpose in the project. There were collection bins being set up, locations secured, and I was like, “Heck yeah, I’ll write the PR for you!” When a purpose bus comes by, get on!

I don’t know where you’re at in your life, but for all of us, a sense of purpose is vital. Sometimes we struggle to find it, and that’s OK – having patience often leads to finding ultimate fulfillment. Sometimes, we have a sense of purpose, then lose it – it happens, and let us take time to rediscover it. And, other times we feel our purpose every day. Purpose isn’t a scorecard, but a journey.

As for Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, I’m writing purpose into the bottom tier because I believe it’s absolutely a foundation of our needs in life.

What We Might Be

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By Mark E. Smith

The philosopher, Laozi, founder of Taoism, asserted, “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”

How many of us have felt trapped in our existence at points in our lives, where circumstances dictate who we are? So much of our lives can be painfully defined by such aspects as our physicality, our family history, our socio-economics, and what’s projected upon us. I know, as I’ve spent my whole life as “one with cerebral palsy,” where from the moment of my birth, I was told what I am. If we go back in time, or even today, as some may still see me, seemingly incapable on realms ranging from the physical to the mental. And, in some ways, they are right. After all, as one with cerebral palsy, my wife does help me on and off of the commode, and, no, I can’t physically even write my own name.

I could have spent my whole life buying into what I am. We all could, no matter our circumstance or situation. However, there’s nothing to gain by buying into “what we are.” Rather, we have everything to gain by striving toward what we might be. I often recount the story of being thrust from an institutionalized school as a seven-year-old to being one of the first publicly mainstreamed students with a severe disability in the U.S. I had no support, but I did have two choices: I could be the child with severe cerebral palsy who many thought belonged in an institutionalized school – after all, that’s who I literally was. Or, I could push toward who I might be – that is, in my young mind, a “normal kid in a normal school.” Everyone knew what I was, but few believed in who I might be. At seven, I didn’t know who Laozi was, or even the gravity of what I was pursuing. The power of the human spirit drove me toward who I might be.

Here’s the key that I now realize: no matter where we find the courage, consciously or intuitively, we must believe in our power to rise above what we are in order to achieve what we might be. I know it’s hard. In ways, it’s easier as a child because the human spirit is naive to how brutal life can be. As adults, time can wear on us – broken and battered. Toxic relationships, dysfunctional upbringings, social pressures, and on and on can all weigh us down, teaching us what we are, in ways that defeat us instead of inspiring us. There was a period in my 30s where I looked in the mirror and saw what I was: a divorced, full-time single dad with severe cerebral palsy. That’s a grim prospect on the dating scene. What woman would ever take on that mess?

But, that wasn’t what I had to be. What I might be is a loving father, and a man who grew and learned from his past marriage, where life-long cerebral palsy instilled in me attributes of perseverance, self-confidence and empathy toward others who’ve faced adversity. Who I might be was once again what I looked toward, and while change didn’t occur overnight, it led to finding my wife and a second daughter, where my life has remained on an empowered, blessed trajectory encased by love for years now.

See, whenever we find ourselves trapped or discontent with what we are, it’s an opportunity to pursue what we might be. We don’t have to settle for where we’re at. We can strive toward what we might be. Is it easy? No. Is it scary? Yes. Might we fall short in the attempt? Absolutely. Yet, as one who’s found himself at such crossroads many times, indeed, it is only when I’ve let go of what I am that I’ve moved closer to what I might be.

Cerebral Palsy and Cigarettes

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By Mark E. Smith

I don’t believe in self-confidence or ego. Those can waiver, be swayed or mislead us. What I believe in is self-comfort.

See, self-comfort is when we truly accept who we are, as we are, to the core – mind, body and soul. We’re comfortable with ourselves beyond all else. It doesn’t mean we’re full of ourselves or delusional. It simply means we know who we are, from the inside, out – and live as such.

And, it makes life so much easier and successful. Rather than wasting energy on trying to be what we’re not or invest in the opinions of others, we can simply thrive by being who we are. With self-comfort, we know our value, we know our favors and our faults, and we work with it all. Life need not be a struggle; it can be as easy and graceful as a leaf drifting in a breeze.

Being a teenager with cerebral palsy taught me this lesson young. I remember being a freshman starting high school, wanting to squelch every spasm, correct every slur in my speech – an overall fantasy of being someone I could never be. I had unbelievable anxiety on the first morning of school that year. The last person I wanted to be was “the kid with cerebral palsy” at my high school. I did an awesome job at covering up all my insecurities, though, by creating the most ridiculous smoke screen – literally. …I took up smoking.

At my high school, in those days, there was a smoking section, and as long as you could score cigarettes, you could smoke. So, as the initial weeks passed, I slowly merged in with the “tough crowd” in the smoking area After all, when it comes to insecurities, there’s strength in numbers. I bought a black leather jacket and biker boots out of the Sears catalog, stuffed my chest pocket with a Zippo lighter and a Marlboro Hard Pack, and my insecurities flipped into rock-solid confidence. Again, self-confidence and ego can fool even ourselves. In my insecure, skewed mind, however, I was a bad-boy in a power chair – right down to smoking Marlboros, no less.

However, as the school year went on, I realized that I didn’t need to be a so-called tough guy. As my classmates of all sorts embraced me, cerebral palsy and all, I didn’t need to hide behind a smoke screen or facade. I could just be me. I was a teenager with cerebral palsy, and if my peers accepted it, why shouldn’t I?

Ultimately, I gave up cigarettes, and fell in with the general crowd, focusing on my grades, girlfriends, and just being me, spasms, slurred speech and all. And, life was so much easier when I was comfortable truly being me. …But, I wore the leather jacket and motorcycle boots all the way through graduation because …well …they were awesome.